The Washington Star
September 27, 1980
SOME TIME AGO
Chronicle of Blacks In Black and White
By Randy Sue Coburn
When Chester Higgins was a youngster in rural Alabama, he spent a lot of time with his grandfather, who was the black community’s preacher when he was running its laundry. Regularly exposed to funerals and baptisms, Higgins became one of those little boys who are old beyond their years, the sort who startle adults with their presumptions of equality.
Now, with the eye of a professional photographer, Higgins is equally at ease going back more than 100 years to examine the visual truths in pictures of black Americans. With "Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black Americans, 1850- 1950 (Doubleday, 1980) he has compiled a collection of photographs that proves it.
The power of the photographs makes the book’s text, by Orde Coombs, seems entirely superfluous. Say so to Higgins, an exceedingly enthusiastic man, and he’ll grab your hand to delightedly shake it. A staff photographer with the New York Times, Higgins points out that the message of his visual history is not nostalgia, it’s one of emotional continuity.
"It’s a form of witnessing," Higgins said, "by the people who were there. Why not let them tell their own story?"
Toward that end, Higgins, 33, combed private and institutional photographic collections over the course of four years. Having already produced several books of his own photographs, he had originally hoped that "Some Time Ago" would be comprised entirely of pictures made by older black photographers, his predecessors. For a number of reasons — the difficulty of locating intact black family albums being one of them — Higgins had to revise that plan.
There are familiar names from the Farm Security Administration photographic staff in the book — Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano. Higgins "Northern mentor," Arthur Rothstein, is also well represented. Among the few black photographers included are Parks and P.H. Polk, a teacher at Tuskegee University, where Higgins graduated. Higgins used a photograph by Polk, "my Southern mentor," of a Tuskegee local on the book’s cover.
"I wasn’t so concerned," Higgins said, "about using white photographers. I was after the person who had the courage to be truly close to their subject. The book profits because these white photographers had that courage."
With his upbringing as a treasured only child in a close family, and his education at Tuskegee, Higgins was not likely to believe that his generation of blacks was the first to discover their rights and identity.
"Many blacks in the 1960s tended to think they were," he said, "but this book shows they weren’t." In a chapter called "In Search," almost everybody, from Florida migrant workers to Harlem political workers to a young couple somewhat ridiculously decked out in 1920s finery, shows an undeniable sense of self.
"Essentially, I look at my people as refugees, and their problems are those of refugees. To me, they’re greater than the problems of racial distinction. But that’s not a political viewpoint — it’s a humanist one."
Higgins was in town to attend Joan Mondale’s fete Wednesday night for the photographers who memorialized the president’s cabinet members for the National Portrait Gallery. This year, the event was touched with controversy because of the decision to deviate from traditional oil portraits.
After covering U. N. Ambassador Andrew Young for the Times, Higgins was selected by Young to photograph him. The picture was taken early one morning "because I wanted that light and that sense of freshness on his face."
A distinctive-looking individual, Higgins wears his beard in an Abraham Lincoln-like style, emulating a dignified gentleman from the 1800s whose portrait appears in his book. But instead of being trimmed, Higgins beard is tied into a braid just beneath his chin.
Although Higgins frequently travels to Dakar, this is not some West African style he picked up there; it’s just an easy way for him to keep his beard neat without consulting a mirror. Higgins obviously takes pains with his clothes, which are quietly stylish. But after spending most of his time looking at other peoples’ faces, he makes a point of refusing to pay very much attention to his own.